‘Getting here cost us everything’: Making a new life in Syria’s Kurdish north

Muthanna al-Hamid and his family of 10 said goodbye to their home in a village along the Euphrates River in Syria’s eastern Deir e-Zor province in September, as battles to drive out the Islamic State made it too dangerous to stay.

He found smugglers willing to take his family and three others north through Deir e-Zor’s eastern countryside towards territory controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Over the course of the journey, al-Hamid spent hundreds of dollars—nearly every cent he had—in payments for smugglers and bribes at checkpoints.

“We had to pay whatever they asked,” he tells Syria Direct. “Especially when threatened with being sent back where we came from.”

Al-Hamid and his family arrived at the SDF-administered Sidd camp for displaced Syrians, located around 20km south of the Kurdish-majority Hasakah city in northeastern Syria.

For the displaced, leaving the Sidd camp is forbidden without a sponsor. After asking relatives and friends in Hasakah, al-Hamid decided to pay another $300 to a smuggler to take him from the camp to Hasakah city.

Hasakah city in November. Photo courtesy of Hasakah Gate.

 Today, al-Hamid and his family are staying with relatives, packed into two small homes in Hasakah city. He has tried to find another place to live, he says, but can’t find anyone willing to rent to someone from Deir e-Zor, because of a suspected bias that Syrians from there support the Islamic State.

“Every time we’ve gone to a real estate office to ask about a house to rent, we’re asked the same question,” says al-Hamid. “‘Are you from Deir e-Zor?’”

Since he arrived just over a month ago, Muthanna has been turned away by about a dozen landlords—despite having money for rent—in Hasakah, he tells Syria Direct’s Julinar Abdelkarim at the home he shares with relatives.

Syria Direct reached out to several Self-Administration officials over the course of five days for comment on al-Hamid’s allegations. All either declined to provide comment or did not reply.

“Getting here cost us our entire life as we knew it, just to reach a place where we are ostracized and despised in every sense,” says al-Hamid.  

Q: Can you tell me about your trip from Deir e-Zor to the SDF camps?

When we reached the Sidd displacement camp, we saw huge overcrowding. Refugees were still coming in from Deir e-Zor, and there were thousands of people. Some slept uncovered on the ground because there wasn’t enough shelter for everyone. Two or three families shared a single tent.

The weather was still hot when we were in Sidd [in September] and the sun’s rays reflected off the hot sand. Whenever the wind came up it blew sand in our faces.

We spent five days there.

[Ed.: In late October, Syria Direct reported on poor conditions and the spread of disease in Sidd, which is among the closest displacement camps to Deir e-Zor province. The camp is under the authority of the Syrian Democratic Forces.]

Q: Why did you leave the Sidd camp?

For us, the camp was a kind of vast prison. There was nothing—no services, electricity, water, doctors or medicine.

We had to find a way out of there. We called all of our friends and relatives—anyone we knew who had fled Deir e-Zor for Hasakah since the revolution began [in 2011]—hoping to find someone who would help us leave. Every one of them said that there was no way out of the camps unless we were willing to pay more money for another smuggler to take us out.

After negotiating with three smugglers, we reached an agreement with one of them. He would take us out in exchange for SP125,000 [approximately $250] per person. For my family of 10, this meant we'd have to pay SP1,250,000 [approximately $2,500]. The smuggler took us out on two consecutive nights, five people at a time.

Finally, we reached Hasakah city [in late September] and are staying with relatives here. My three youngest children, my wife and I are staying at my sister’s house, where she lives with her family, married daughter and her daughter’s children. It’s a three-room house.

My two teenage sons and their younger sisters are living with my niece’s family in their two-room house. As if that weren’t hard enough, my sons are mostly stuck at home. The SDF sometimes rounds up men for mandatory conscription in the parts of Hasakah city controlled by the Self-Administration. They don’t care if you’re Arab, Kurdish or a refugee.

[Ed.: The Kurdish-led Self-Administration governing the territories that make up the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS) conscripts able-bodied men over the age of 18 for nine months of “self-defense duty,” which applies to all Syrian and foreign nationals.]

Q: How was the beginning of your life in Hasakah city? How did local residents receive you?

After we arrived, my family had to start looking for a place to live so we could stop being a burden on the relatives we are staying with. They aren’t doing very well, financially.

But every time we went to a real estate office to ask about renting a house, we were asked the same question: ‘Are you from Deir e-Zor?’ When I said yes, the owner of the real estate office would say there were no homes for rent.

This happened again and again, hearing the same response and seeing the same disgusted look on their faces when I reveal that I’m from Deir e-Zor. When I ask friends and acquaintances about houses for rent, I get the same response.

Recently, I found a landlord who was ready to rent his house to me—for a high price—and I reluctantly accepted because I didn’t have any other options. We went to the commune to sign the contract, and that was the last straw—the commune refused to allow the landlord to rent to me, saying that ‘all people from Deir e-Zor are from Daesh [the Islamic State].’

[Ed.: Communes are the base unit in the democratic confederalist system followed by the Self-Administration. A commune comprises local governing assemblies ranging in size from an entire village to hundreds of families in a larger city that fit into a multi-layered, decentralized system of councils and districts.]

Sometimes I sit and think about what’s become of us. What did we do to deserve this kind of treatment? The camps, the exploitation, the extortion, the hatred and the racism?

Discrimination became painfully clear when I went to the market [shortly after we arrived] to try to find a shop where I could sell vegetables, like I used to in Deir e-Zor. We had a comfortable life in Deir e-Zor, but my money was nearly gone after all the smugglers we'd hired.

Moreover, a license is required in order to open a shop. But the Self-Administration absolutely refuses to issue any licenses to ‘Islamic State terrorists’ from Deir e-Zor, as they claim we are.

[Ed.: Syria Direct could not independently verify that this policy exists in Self-Administration areas, and did not receive comment from the local authorities by the time of publication, despite multiple requests.]

If we were with IS, then why would we run from them? Why did we leave our homes and everything that was dear to us, paying everything we had? Getting here cost us our entire life as we knew it, just to reach a place where we are ostracized and despised in every sense, where we suffer from the poorest kind of treatment. We have not forgotten that all of us here are Syrian—we didn’t come from some other planet.

Q: Do you regret coming to live in Hasakah?

If I knew that I was going to be treated like this by most of the people here—especially Kurdish people—I would have stayed in Deir e-Zor and died with dignity alongside my family. That would be better than feeling humiliated every second of every day in this city.

That old saying is true: Once you leave home, you’re on your own.

With reporting by Julinar Abdelkarim.

This interview is part of Syria Direct's month-long coverage of northern, Kurdish-held Syria in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.


Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.